Andrea Williams looks back over the past year, reviewing how Christian freedoms have been impacted.
2020 was a bad year for freedom generally with harsh lockdowns imposed across the country and churches forced by law to close for the first time in hundreds of years. As we entered 2021, things were looking brighter. Churches were allowed to meet again, at least in England and Wales, but not in Scotland where gathered worship remained illegal.
Ruling protects Christian worship
We had previously threatened legal action against the shocking criminalisation of Christian worship on behalf of church leaders in England and Wales. Each time, just before it got to court, the government opened churches again, rendering the legal action ‘academic’. So, we tried again in Scotland, and this time the Scottish government did not back down, and we did get to court.
In a historic judgment in March, Lord Braid ruled that the Scottish Government’s decision to criminalise gathered Christian worship was both unconstitutional and a breach of human rights. He also ruled that online worship is not real worship, berating the Scottish government for dictating that worship should be conducted online.
This judgment will have continuing implications across the United Kingdom with the result that, whatever other restrictions the government may impose, criminalisation of Christian worship should not happen again. This was a remarkable and highly significant landmark for Christian freedoms in this country, and one we will look back on for many years to come.
Police picking on Christian preachers
Police have been taking a hard line on Christians carrying out their ministry in the open air in the last few years. Pastor Chez Dyer, was fined £16,000 in February for holding a church service for the homeless during lockdown. The open-air meeting included praise and worship, and also distributing hot Caribbean food. With the help of our legal team, she challenged the fine, and we were delighted that the case was dropped in December.
On Easter Day in 2020 the police arrested and fined a Christian for preaching the gospel on the streets of London. On Easter Day! Andrew Sathiyavan is a full-time voluntary worker for Gospel Light Ministries and regularly preaches across the UK, as well as supporting the homeless and those suffering from drug and alcohol addictions. Our legal team defended him in court this year, but the judge upheld the fine and told him that he should have taken his preaching online. Our legal team is appealing this ruling.
However, in a similar incident in Solihull, Andrew was arrested and fined again for preaching, and even strip searched in custody, but the judge threw out the case against him.
In a similar case, another street preacher had been fined and prosecuted for evangelising on Good Friday in 2020. After being cautioned, Joshua Sutcliffe continued to preach, and even gave his shoes to a homeless man, resulting in him walking home barefoot. With help from our legal team this year, he was found not guilty on all charges.
In yet another case, Hazel Lewis was arrested while preaching last year after false allegations of making homophonic and racist comments were made against her. She is the first Christian woman to face trial for street preaching since a landmark free speech case in 1997. She was supported by our legal team in court this year where the judge ruled that there was no case to answer. She now intends to launch legal action against the police.
Separately, Christian evangelist Hatun Tash was repeatedly stabbed at Speakers’ Corner by a man wearing a black Islamic robe. She was lucky to escape with only minor injuries since it is evident from video footage that the man intended to kill her. Police failed to arrest the attacker. Hatun is well-known for her fearless critique of Islamic teaching. She had previously been arrested and even held overnight by police though no charges have been brought against her. The police had therefore been complicit in stopping her from critiquing Islam, but failed to protect her right to free speech.
We are not living in a free country if you can be arrested or fined for preaching the gospel or ministering to the homeless. The Christian Legal Centre has a 100% track record of clearing street preachers from all charges. The problem is that the police believe, at least in some cases, that ‘being offensive is an offence’. This is categorically false in law. We now need a change of culture and procedures in the police so that they respect free speech and stop arresting street preachers. Without the Christian Legal Centre, it is likely that the police and the courts would routinely arrest and fine street preachers, putting an end to this vital ministry.
Actress lost job for Facebook post
In February, the Employment Tribunal heard the case of a Christian actress who was sacked after a five-year-old Facebook post was found in which she criticised same-sex marriage. No action was taken against the racist online abuse which she suffered as a result. The tribunal ruled against her, finding that although she would not have been dropped from her role without the expression of belief made some years before, this was not the reason for the termination of her contract. An incredible £350,000 costs award was made against this young actress. She will be appealing this vital case for freedom of expression next year. No one should lose their job for expressing Christian beliefs about marriage or sexual morality.
Magistrate dismissed for expressing Christian beliefs
Richard Page, formerly a Christian magistrate and non-executive NHS trust director, sadly passed away this year. Richard was dismissed as a magistrate for stating that children are best raised with a father and a mother. He also lost his position as an NHS director following claims that service users might be deterred from accessing services if they knew his views. This year, the Court of Appeal ruled that although Mr Page was free to hold his Christian views on sexuality, his expression of these beliefs in the media justified his sacking. The case, which is also vital for freedom of expression for Christians, is proceeding to the Supreme Court. Expression of Christian beliefs should not be a bar to office of any kind.
School chaplain sacked for saying we should be free to disagree
In May this year, we drew attention to the shocking case of school chaplain Rev. Dr Bernard Randall who was reported to the terrorist watchdog and forced out of his job for a sermon in chapel telling pupils that they are free to disagree with identity politics. Dr Randall’s case made headlines around the world, and his sermon was printed in full in a national newspaper. Commentators expressed their shock and disbelief that a chaplain could lose his job for such an inoffensive sermon. In June, an employment tribunal judge criticised lawyers for the school whose delays and failure to serve their evidence left him with no option but to postpone the hearing till September 2022! This is manifestly unfair as Dr Randall’s career is put on hold pending the hearing. Something is clearly wrong when an ordained Christian minister can lose his job for a Christian sermon that he preached in a Christian act of worship in a Christian chapel in a Christian institution.
Doctor prevented from offering life-saving treatment
The government last year allowed abortion pills to be prescribed over the phone as an emergency measure during lockdown. Now, at the beginning of 2022, this measure remains in place and the government has yet to respond to a consultation which closed in February last year. FOI requests have found that 1 in 17 of these women end up in hospital. We challenged the legality of the government’s decision in court and have now taken the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
Dr Dermot Kearney was offering abortion pill reversal treatment for women who regretted taking the first pill. Incredibly, he was prevented from providing the life-saving treatment pending an investigation by the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service. This is believed to be the first time a medical doctor has been prohibited from providing a treatment that saves lives. As of today, 30 healthy babies have been born this year following the help provided by Dr Kearney. Our legal team has supported his case, arguing that there is no reason why women should not be able to access this treatment. What does it say about our society when a medical doctor is prevented from saving lives at a time when we are all told to take precautions in order to save lives in response to coronavirus?
Christians prevented from booking venue
We held our Wilberforce Academy in the lovely grounds and facilities of Worcester College in September. We had a great time with around 80 young people, teaching and equipping them for faithful Christian living in today’s culture. There were no complaints at the time, and we got on well with the staff at the college. Sadly, some students subsequently complained and the Provost of the college, David Isaac, apologised unreservedly for allowing our event to take place at the college. David Isaac was formerly chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission in which role he spoke out robustly in support of free speech in higher education. We have, however, still not been able to confirm our booking for next year, so it appears that David Isaac does not support free speech after all! Is it a free society when Christian groups are barred from booking venues because some people disagree with their views?
Nurse forced out for wearing a cross necklace
Should a nurse be bullied and pressurised out of her job for wearing a cross necklace? Surely not, yet that is what happened to Mary Onuoha, resulting in her being forced out of the job she loved, after working as an NHS theatre practitioner for 18 years. Nurses normally wear lanyards with various attachments which are much more of a possible health and safety risk than a small cross on a chain. Supported by our legal team, her case was heard in October, and we are still waiting for the judgment. Why is it that Christian symbols are singled out for such harsh treatment?
‘Conversion therapy’ proposals to criminalise Christian ministry
The Welsh government admitted in an equality impact assessment this year that its LGBTQ+ action plan could lead to the prosecution of religious leaders. The equality assessment states: “A proposal within the draft plan to ban conversion therapy practices may restrict religious freedoms and place faith leaders at risk of prosecution.”
As we begin a new year, the UK government has been forced to extend its consultation on proposals to ban so-called ‘conversion therapy’. Proposals mean that Christian pastoral ministry is threatened with criminalisation as the government proposes that under 18s cannot consent to certain conversations, even if they desperately want them. I am encouraged that over 2,000 Christian ministers have signed an open letter to Liz Truss explaining their serious concerns with the proposals and making clear their willingness to disobey any such law. We hope and pray that the government will see sense and back down from plans to criminalise certain consensual private conversations.
Freedoms not fought for are freedoms forfeited
History teaches us that freedoms not fought for are freedoms forfeited. We are living in an era when there is a real attack on Christian freedoms. We risk losing vital freedoms unless we value them enough to stand up for them. At Christian Concern and the Christian Legal Centre we are fighting every day for our precious freedoms. We now get around 1,000 case inquiries per year. Each one is important, and each one is a person who is concerned about how their expression of their Christian faith may impact their life or career. As we enter 2022, we plan to continue to stand and fight for freedom. This is a battle worth fighting. It is not just for our generation, but for future generations that we stand.